Cairo: Crowds of protesters began massing in central Cairo for a sixth day of angry revolt against Hosni Mubarak’s regime Sunday amid increasing lawlessness, a rising death toll and a spate of jail breaks.
Groups of protesters were seen heading steadily towards Tahrir square, epicentre of the biggest demonstrations to sweep the country in more than 30 years, where army tanks guarded key buildings.
Troops manned checkpoints on roads into the square, frisking demonstrators for weapons before allowing them in. Around 2,000 people, many of them sitting down and including families, were inside by midday (1000 GMT).
Demonstrators chanted anti-Mubarak slogans with a group bearing an army officer in uniform high on their shoulders amid a good-tempered atmosphere far from the chaotic scenes of the past two days.
Army vehicles drove around the square with “No to Mubarak” spraypainted on their flanks in Arabic as well as “Fuck Mubarak” in English.
With fears of insecurity rising and a death toll of more than 100, thousands of convicts broke out of the Wadi Natrun prison north of Cairo overnight after they overwhelmed guards. Eight inmates died in the mass escape.
A security official said the facility held many Islamist political prisoners with the escaped inmates spilling out into nearby towns and villages.
Prisoners also fled several other prisons across Egypt, the official said.
Amid rampant pillaging in more than five days of deadly protests, many Egyptians believe that the police have deliberately released prisoners in order to spread chaos and emphasize the need for the security forces.
At daybreak, groups of club-carrying vigilantes slowly left the streets that they had been protecting from rampant looting overnight amid growing insecurity as the Arab world’s most populous nation faced an uncertain future.
Youths handed over to the army those they suspected of looting, with the police who had been fighting running battles with stone-throwing protesters in the first day of the demonstrations hardly visible.
Many petrol stations are now running out of fuel, motorists said, and many bank cash machines have either been looted or are no longer working. Egyptian banks and the stock exchange have been ordered closed on Sunday.
Embattled Mubarak on Saturday named military intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as his first-ever vice president and also a new premier, Ahmed Shafiq, but protesters dismissed the moves as too little, too late.
Both men are stalwarts of Egypt’s all-powerful military establishment.
Suleiman, 75, has spearheaded years of Egyptian efforts to clinch an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and tried so far in vain to mediate an inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
Shafiq, 69, is respected by the Egyptian elite, even among the opposition, and has often been mooted as a potential successor to Mubarak.
Egypt’s state-owned press adopted a new tone on Sunday, with the traditionally pro-Mubarak Al-Gomhouria touting “Change.”
Al-Akhbar newspaper slammed senior ruling party member Ahmed Ezz, who until his resignation on Saturday, was considered number three in the country, blaming him for having “ruined everything.”
Fresh riots Saturday, the fifth day of the revolt, left 22 people dead in the town of Beni Sueif, south of Cairo, where protesters tried to burn down a police station, witnesses and a security source said.
Another three protesters died in Cairo and three police persons were killed in the Sinai town of Rafah, raising to at least 102 the number of people killed since the unrest erupted on Tuesday, including 33 on Saturday, according to medics.
As Mubarak stood his ground, influential Arab cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi called on him to quit, in an interview with Al-Jazeera.
“Leave Mubarak. Have pity on the people and get lost before the destruction spreads in Egypt,” said the Egyptian-born president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, who called the President “deaf, dumb and blind.”
On Sunday, Egypt’s outgoing information minister Anas al-Fikki ordered the closure of Al Jazeera’s operations in Egypt after the pan-Arab satellite channel gave blanket coverage to the anti-government riots.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Jerusalem on Sunday that Israel is carefully watching developments in Egypt and its efforts are focused on maintaining the “stability and security” of the region.
The Rafah crossing between southern Gaza and Egypt was closed on Sunday, a Palestinian official told AFP, saying Egyptian officials had left the border following the spiralling political unrest.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon meanwhile called for “restraint, non-violence and respect for fundamental rights” in Egypt, addressing the African Union summit that opened in Addis Ababa.
The United States said Saturday that Mubarak should carry out “real reform” beyond a government reshuffle, as the US President met top aides on the crisis and anti-Mubarak protests spread to US cities.
President Barack Obama gathered his national security team at the White House for a session lasting just over an hour on latest developments in Egypt.
Obama “reiterated our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights; and supporting concrete steps that advance political reform within Egypt,” a White House statement said.
With tanks taking up positions around the Cairo Museum to protect the priceless artefacts inside, concern also grew for foreign tourists stranded in the land of the Pharaohs, with around 500 Japanese stranded at Cairo airport after their EgyptAir flights were cancelled.
Japanese foreign minister Seiji Maehara expressed his concern at a meeting with ambassador Walid Mahmoud Abdelnasser in Tokyo and called on Egypt to “establish a stable government through dialogue and solve the problem in a peaceful manner.”
Many countries have warned against all but essential travel to Egypt.